Q: So, Rich, tell us about yourself—and why you wrote The Screenwriting Quick Start.
A: The Screenwriting Quick Start is written for those new to screenwriting and is based on twenty-eight years of uniquely-broad Hollywood experiences. I’ve been a technical and journalistic writer for more than thirty-five years. I have written or co-written a couple dozen screenplays. In 1998, Penguin Putnam published my book The Screenwriting Life—a look at the world of screenwriting. I have written for Script magazine (when it was in print form), screenwriting newsletters and screenwriting websites. Industrywise, I have acted on Prime-Time television shows, contributed story elements to television shows as a subject matter expert, pitched episodic stories, pitched series concepts to network television development executives, pitched feature concepts to drama development executives at major studios, had a feature script optioned and moved to production, and interviewed more than a hundred writers, producers, directors, studio executives, agents, screenwriting professors, and authors of popular screenwriting how-to books. I worked for more than a decade at Paramount Pictures and CBS/Paramount in Network Television Business Affairs and Network Television Legal. As to formal screenwriting training, I completed three years in the UCLA Advanced Professional Program in Screenwriting and have introductory experience with the USC World Building approach. I’ve long been an avid screenwriting student.
Over the past twenty-eight years, I have also had a fascination with story structuring and storytelling. My office bookshelves are filled with screenwriting and storytelling how-to books—heavily underlined, I might add—including many lesser known books, some dating back to the start of filmmaking.
Q: Who best benefits from your book?
A: I wrote the book primarily for vast audience of writers who are new to screenwriting. However, there are insights that will absolutely benefit the experienced writer. In fact, one of my test readers is a highly successful actress-writer-producer with pages of credits. When she read the chapters on Politics and Development, she discovered insight about how TV development works that she never knew. And those insights helped her make sense about why several deals went south. She told me that had she known what she learned in my book before going into those negotiations, it would have helped her tremendously. What I cover in this book I have not found covered well in any other book or publication. For example, I don’t know anyone who has talked about the prime-time major network TV year. In network television, there is a distinct TV year that begins and ends with the Up Fronts in mid-May.
The major seasons are pitching season, pilot writing season, and pilot production season. Then for running TV shows, there is a period for season development (plotting out the overall arc for the year), staffing season (when the show rehires staff, replaces staff and brings on an entry-level staff writer), and then the episodic writing and producing. And within each of these seasons there are a lot of moving parts that overlap and are interdependent. Understanding the vagaries of all this helps those who are struggling to break in. Understanding the system helps eliminate some of the frustrations by informing the writer when it is ideal to expend certain effort and when not to waste your time. For example, if you try to pitch a new pilot idea during pilot producing season (January to May), you are wasting your time.
Q: Why aren’t they taking pitches during pilot producing season?
A: The simple answer is that each network has a designated pot of money to pay for a pilot to be written. Once they have expended that pot, there is no need to take any more pitches because there is no money to pay for the writing. In general, pilots are pitched starting as early as June; pilot script orders could be handed out as early as then, but generally not until a bit later. Then, usually, by November all the major networks have handed out their allotment of pilot writing monies. After that, unless a studio is willing to pay for a script to be written, pitching season is over. When I worked at Paramount Network Television Business Affairs, the studio rarely paid for a pilot script, but it did happen. So, if you are a struggling writer and you are out there pounding on doors from November to May, they’re not going to open. I’d recommend they put their effort into something else to further develop their skills.
Now, all this only applies to prime-time, major networks. Today, there are many other episodic platforms, such as, Netflix, Amazon, and all the non-major network channels. I can’t speak too much about development seasons in these avenues because I have little experience with them. But I can tell a writer to not go after pitching to major networks outside of their pitching season. Instead, maybe invest time into finding ways to reach out to the other venues.
Q: Is there anything unique or new to the world of screenwriting how-to books?
A: Yes. Since 1989, I have invested thousands upon thousands of hours into studying nearly all the major story structuring and storytelling how-to books and programs. I also completed three years in UCLA’s Advanced Professional Program in Screenwriting and have taken classes on USC’s World Building approach. Also, over the years, I have helped new writers get a screenwriting start. As I looked back through all this experience, I realized writers pretty much fit into one of three groups when it comes to a structuring approach that best suits them. I also posit that the greatest value of any structuring approach is its ability to motivate the writer to start writing and keep writing. The only way to grow as a writer is to write. Structure books have little value if they fail to help the new writer start and keep on writing. I think that what I have added that is new is my belief that writers can be divided into one of three groups and then directed to structuring approaches that best fits their writing style.
When I looked back through all that I had learned and experienced, I realized that writers tend to fall into one of three groups (what I refer to as the three lanes in the structuring road): those who want the least amount of handholding, those who want some handholding, and those who want a lot of handholding. I believe that those who want the least handholding work best when given the basics and then are left alone. For this group, I’d suggest an Aristotelian approach—basically, Aristotle’s beginning, middle and end teaching. For those who want a little more handholding, I’d recommend a scene sequencing approach. This is the concept that stories can be broken down into a sequence of small stories that build to tell a larger story. In that approach, the writer identifies the sequences and then writes each short story—and each sequence will have its own beginning, middle, and end. And for those who need the most handholding, I’d recommend a roadmap approach. And in my book, I describe the basics of each of these approaches and recommend some books that I like.
This is not to put down any one of these approaches because each approach has generated a major hit. Again, keep in mind that the greatest value of any of these approaches is its ability to get a writer writing and to keep them writing.
Q: I see you have a section on Commonly Debated Topics. What’s that about?
A: I’m sure you can relate to this. How many times have you weighed in on questions posted online about theme that led to endless arguments over definitions of theme, premise, moral and message? Probably more than you want to admit. I have a chapter that lays out the basic conflicting points of view in the most often posted questions. I tried to be more of a journalist in this section and present the different points of view. I suggest to my readers that they read this chapter and then skip over all those online posts because they all end up as nothing more than angry back-and-forth exchanges. I’m convinced that most of those posters don’t really care to learn, they merely want to start threads that bring out bickering. I have wasted too many hours on these arguments when I could’ve been working on productive writing.
Q: How important is goalsetting?
A: I think it’s critical. The people I’ve met who do not have short-term and long-term goals tend to wait for inspiration that rarely comes. Without a disciplined plan, too many aspiring writers fall into the trap of writing only when inspiration and free time hit them—which is not often enough to grow and turn out enough product to launch a career. Goalsetting is a critical element of accomplishment. I wrote this short chapter to recommend that writers craft a plan for education, writing, and networking. I believe that a disciplined routine is the best way to succeed.
Q: Do you need to understand Hollywood politics before venturing in—or can you wing it and succeed?
A: No, but understanding how the system works will very likely help avoid wasting time and running down rabbit trails. It can also give you a level of comfort to know how the system grinds. Most things are out of your control. Understand and accept this and do what has the potential to move the needle forward for you. Accept the fact that, compared to the numbers who are trying, exceedingly few will sell a script or get staffed. So don’t waste time worrying about what you can’t control. Learn what you can control and do all that you can to become one of those few. Have a day job and invest time into writing, networking, and everything else that has the potential to open doors.
Q: How does TV development differ from feature development?
A: In short, TV development last for that year only. At the end of the TV year, 99% of that year’s unproduced deals are dead and put in storage, and the TV year starts out afresh. At the top of the year, networks are deciding what pitches they are open to and what ideas they are not interested in hearing. That is passed to the studios and agencies and pitching season begins. When a pilot concept moves into development, the studio development exec works with the writer(s) on the pitch. If a network likes a pitch and places a script order, the writer must address notes from the studio development exec as well as network notes. Then you wait to see if it gets a pilot order. If it doesn’t, that’s pretty much the end of the line.
In feature development, scripts can flounder in development hell for years or decades as the production company works to get a draft that has the potential to reach the demographics they need to meet to realize the predicted sales necessary to justify production and turn a profit. In the mix are bean counters who estimate what revenues can be expected to come in and what markets the story will work well in and which markets will it not work well in. From that, the studio may choose to give notes to the writer to address market weaknesses. This is where scripts can be improved or, frankly, fall apart. We’ve all see movies after which you wonder how the hell something so convoluted got made. I blame the bean counters and production execs trying to force a round peg into a square hole.
Feature development seems to be more about finding a vision that the production company will get behind and fund producing. For big budget movies, it’s also about locking down A-list talent (directors, actors, producers, etc.). Feature production is more like a putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Again, you can make better decisions the better you understand how the system works. The Screenwriting Quick Start provides a foundational understanding for those just starting down the Hollywood rabbit trail.
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